DENVER — Five months after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, the battle over legalization is still raging.
Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws.
There is the Denver man who, hours after buying a package of marijuana-infused Karma Kandy from one of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana shops, began raving about the end of the world and then pulled a handgun from the family safe and killed his wife, the authorities say. Some hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana. Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns.
“I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you’re in the marijuana business,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization. “We’ve seen lives damaged. We’ve seen deaths directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We’ve seen marijuana slipping through Colorado’s borders. We’ve seen marijuana getting into the hands of kids.”
Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data. Because of the lag in reporting many health statistics, it may take years to know legal marijuana’s effect — if any — on teenage drug use, school expulsions or the number of fatal car crashes.
It was only in January, for example, that the Colorado State Patrol began tracking the number of people pulled over for driving while stoned. Since then, marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 1.5 percent of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Proponents of legalization argue that the critics are cherry-picking anecdotes to tarnish a young industry that has been flourishing under intense scrutiny.
The vast majority of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana stores are living up to stringent state rules, they say. The stores have sold marijuana to hundreds of thousands of customers without incident. The industry has generated $12.6 million in taxes and fees so far, though the revenues have not matched some early projections.
Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver — where the bulk of Colorado’s pot retailers are — are down so far this year. The number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8 percent from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7 percent. Over all, crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline.
“Every major institution said this would be horrible and lead to violence and blood in the streets,” said Brian Vicente, one of the authors of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in Colorado. “None of that’s happened. The sky did not fall.”
The argument is being waged with fervor because both sides say Colorado’s successes and failures with regulating marijuana will shape perceptions of legalization for voters considering similar measures in other states and for leery federal law enforcement officials. After the 2012 legalization votes in Colorado and Washington State — where recreational sales are expected to begin this summer — Justice Department officials gave the states a cautious green light. But they warned that they might intervene if marijuana ended up fueling violence or drug trafficking, or flowing across state lines or into the hands of children.
Marijuana opponents like Thomas J. Gorman of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which helps law enforcement, say Colorado is already falling short of those standards.
“In any other state if they were making as much money and growing as much dope, they’d be taken out by the feds,” Mr. Gorman said.
Few agree on how much legally purchased marijuana is being secreted out of Colorado. Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana that could be traced to Colorado. But according to the Kansas Highway Patrol, total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during the first four months of the year, a 61 percent decline.
Some sheriffs and police chiefs along Colorado’s borders say they have noticed little change. But in Colby, Kan., which sits along an interstate highway running west to Colorado, Police Chief Ron Alexander said charges for sale, distribution or possession related to marijuana were rising fast. This year, he tallied 20 such cases through May 23. Two years ago, there were six during that same time period.
Sheriff Adam Hayward of Deuel County, Neb., said he was locking up more people for marijuana-related offenses. “It’s kind of a free-for-all,” he said. “The state or the federal government needs to step up and do something.”
Criminal marijuana cases in Colorado plunged by 65 percent in 2013, the first full year of legalization for personal recreational use, but the police in some areas have been writing dozens of tickets to crack down on public marijuana smokers. Police and fire officials across the state have been contending with a sharp rise in home explosions, as people try to cook hashish oil over butane flames. And despite a galaxy of legal, regulated marijuana stores across the state, prosecutors say a dangerous illicit market persists.
In February, for example, in the Denver suburb of Aurora, a 17-year-old planning to rob an out-of-state marijuana buyer instead accidentally shot and killed his girlfriend, law enforcement officials said.
“Why break into a house to steal a TV or a computer that you have to fence when you can steal mounds of cash or marijuana, which is like liquid?” said George Brauchler, the district attorney who oversees Aurora. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re starting to become more aware of.”
Many of Colorado’s starkest problems with legal marijuana stem from pot-infused cookies, chocolates and other surprisingly potent edible treats that are especially popular with tourists and casual marijuana users.
On Colorado’s northern plains, for example, a fourth grader showed up on the playground one day in April and sold some of his grandmother’s marijuana to three classmates. The next day, one of those students returned the favor by bringing in a marijuana edible he had swiped from his own grandmother.
“This was kind of an unintended consequence of Colorado’s new law,” said John Gates, the district’s director of school safety and security. “For crying out loud, secure your weed. If you can legally possess it, that’s fine. But it has no place in an elementary school.”
So far this year, nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick. In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such cases.
In March, the state logged what appeared to be its first death directly tied to legal recreational marijuana when a 19-year-old African exchange student, Levy Thamba Pongi, plunged to his death in Denver. He and three other students had driven from their college in Wyoming to sample Colorado’s newly legal wares. Mr. Pongi ate marijuana-infused cookies, began acting wildly and leapt from a hotel balcony, officials said; the medical examiner’s office said marijuana intoxication had made a “significant” contribution to the accident.
In April, the shooting death of Kristine Kirk raised even more concerns about regulating edible marijuana. Minutes before she was killed, Ms. Kirk called 911 to say her husband, Richard, was “talking like it was the end of the world” and had consumed marijuana and possibly prescription medication for back pain, according to a police affidavit. Police later confirmed that Mr. Kirk had bought the Karma Kandy and a pre-rolled joint from a licensed marijuana shop that evening.
Those two deaths, combined with reports of groggy, nauseated children visiting emergency rooms, forced the state to tighten its labeling and packaging rules for edible marijuana. Regulators are also considering whether to set lower limits on the amount of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, that can be packed into one cookie or chocolate bonbon.
Even supporters of legalization such as Mr. Vicente say Colorado needs to pass stricter rules about edible marijuana. He said the state was racing up a sharp learning curve.
“Marijuana was illegal for 80 years,” Mr. Vicente said. “Now it’s legal, and everyone’s just trying to figure out how to approach these new issues.”
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service — if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.